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What the Cowboys defense should expect from the Vikings offense

Dalvin Cook and Co. will present a problem for the Cowboys defense.

Minnesota Vikings v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Dalvin Cook. That’s the post.

No, but seriously, in a world where running backs values have absolutely plummeted, Dalvin Cook is one of two or three backs that hold some real value in the NFL in year 2020.

Averaging over five yards per carry so far in 2020, Cook has been the engine behind the Vikings offense. The thing that stands out with Cook the most, is his ability to create yards on his own by using his speed, vision, and elusiveness to create space that other backs seemingly wouldn’t have. To pair with his per carry efficiency, Cook has also been very productive finding the end zone this year scoring 13 times (12 rushing, one receiving), making him an extremely dangerous matchup for a Cowboys defense who has struggled to stop the run in 2020. The Vikings are dedicated to the ground game, and even if they don’t have early success with it on Sunday, they will stick with it and eventually they will get the big run from Cook that he seemingly pops off every week.

Minnesota Vikings v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Vikings offense currently ranks ninth in rush EPA, fourth in rush success rate, and 12th in overall EPA per play. But their passing game results haven’t matched their rushing success rate so far in 2020. The Vikings dropback EPA currently ranks 15th, and their success rate ranks 16th in the NFL. Which again points to one glaring issue for the Dallas Cowboys - you must throw everything you can at limiting Dalvin Cook.

While Dalvin Cook is far and away the biggest threat to the Cowboys defense, wide receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson will get their fair share of victories as well, especially with rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs on the injured reserve list. Both Jefferson and Thielen move around a ton, and will spend time on the boundary and in the slot, which presents some matchup nightmares for the Cowboys given both receivers route-running ability, size, and consistency at the catch-point. Justin Jefferson, the Vikings 2020 first-round pick, has been one of the best rookies in the NFL, and has the ability to takeover games if given free releases and coverage cushion. Adam Thielen is still a consistent threat for Kirk Cousins, and is Cousins go-to receiver on third downs and in the red zone.

Another matchup nightmare for the Cowboys defense is tight end Irv Smith Jr., who is currently questionable with a groin injury. If he does play, look for Vikings offensive coordinator to get Smith matched up with Jaylon Smith in coverage as much as possible. In 2020, Jaylon Smith is allowing a passer-rating of 119.0, a completion percentage of over 71.0%, and has struggled in the red zone when lined up in coverage. Veteran Kyle Rudolph will still see run, even if Irv Smith does play, but doesn’t pose as much of a threat as a receiver at this stage of his career.

Last but not least, we have Captain Kirk. After nine years in the NFL, I still have zero idea what Kirk Cousins is. At times he looks like a top 10 quarterback and a guy that you think could lead a team to a Super Bowl. Then there’s the bad, and the lows for Kirk Cousin are pretty low. Through ten games, Cousins sits right in the middle of the pack of nearly ever advanced metric. Cousins’ relies heavily on his running game and play-action to set the passing game up for success. Which by the way, get ready to see a ton of play-action from the Vikings offense when they do dropback on Sunday afternoon. The one thing you shouldn’t see much of on Sunday is motion at the snap for the Vikings offense. According to Seth Walder of ESPN, the Vikings rank 24th in the NFL at motion at the snap. The Cowboys defense has struggled immensely in 2020 with pre-snap motion and motion at the snap, but they may get a break from the eye-candy pre-snap on Sunday.

At the end of the day, the Cowboys success on defense will come down to stopping Dalvin Cook. While Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson have the ability to win games for the Vikings, the way Mike Zimmer wants to play football is to run the football, be physical, control the clock, and limit turnovers. While that style of football has often been unsuccessful here lately, they are going to live or die by it, and Mike Nolan’s unit will need to be dedicated to stopping the run. Will need a big day from the defensive tackles and linebackers if the Cowboys want to push forward in the NFC East race.